SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
September, 15, 2019
MY PERSONAL DILEMMA AND WHY I DECIDED TO LEAVE
If you prefer to listen/watch, versus read, this video is for you.
So as I’m doing all of this research to plan my transition out of the active duty Army, I did a lot of introspection and analysis on what was driving me away from the Army. Maybe some of these will also resonate with you or maybe you’ll have some feedback on where you feel my perspective is inaccurate…
Like many junior officers, I came to conclude a few things:
- I want more freedom and career flexibility than the Army allows for. I can’t go on an overseas trip without a lot of paperwork and explanation. I don’t have the ability to truly control my destiny in a meaningful way. Sure, I can influence things to some degree depending on the circumstances, but I don’t own my life. The Army owns my life. Because of my GRADSO (Graduate School Additional Duty Service Obligation), I owed an additional three years of time to the Army on top of my initial five year active duty commitment coming out of West Point. Let’s just say that the GRADSO was not the best choice for me. Mistakes were made and I don’t regret it, but it definitely created a very rigid path I had to follow with little to no options to customize.
- I observed the organizational norm of doing things a certain way because “this is the way we’ve always done them.” I don’t necessarily think that’s always a bad thing. It just is the way it is. Large, bureaucratic organizations have historical knowledge and deeply entrenched cultures, policies, and procedures that smaller, flatter organizations simply don’t. There are pros and cons to both, and I understand that. People try to talk me into staying in the Army because “the civilian workplace is just as bad.” It’s hard to take that statement seriously when it’s coming from folks who have spent their entire lives…in the Army. Bureaucracies are a very necessary thing–I just don’t necessarily want to spend my entire life working within one. NOT that there’s anything wrong with that for those who choose that path and thrive within it. I just personally prefer to exist outside of those confines for now.
- Talent management is challenging in a lot of ways and for me personally, with the amount of time leaders are expected to invest in the organization on a daily basis, it’s currently not worth existing in the kind of “cog in a wheel” environment we are often relegated to. There is some change on the horizon, but for me, it’s too little too late. A friend conceptualized it in an interesting way. He said, “There are people that the Army needs and there are people that need the Army.” And from my perspective, it seems like the majority of policies are made with with specific consideration for those that need the Army. It was discouraging that based on this “lowest common denominator” mentality, the people under my care, my professional destiny, and my general quality of life were completely in the hands of leaders who didn’t necessarily care, weren’t necessarily qualified, and would potentially never be held accountable.
- I personally derive meaning and fulfillment from helping people, and that constitutes a much smaller portion of my job than the parts I’ve found absolutely soul-draining: creating products to communicate our unit’s short-term quantitative performance in seemingly redundant, inefficient methods. And really, that’s just the way it is. It’s the nature of large, bureaucratic organizations. The organizational inertia that we seem to experience perpetually is “the way it has always been” or “the way it was whenever I was a young officer,” according to people who have served in the Army for many more years than I ever will. In my mind, THIS. IS. THE. PROBLEM. If things never seem to change, and organizational dysfunction is the rule, not the exception, then we absolutely have a pervasive, systemic problem. And if it’s persisted for decades, I would venture to say it’s not going to change anytime soon. There are certainly aspects of any occupation or endeavor that will be unpleasant and require grit. It’s just that for me, I have decided that the expenditure of my blood, sweat, and tears also requires the potential for service and contributions in a way that provides me with some degree of meaningful fulfillment. Maybe that’s a pipe dream, but better to find out than to settle and always wonder what could’ve been.
- I have a lot of personal goals, to include investing in my mental health, nutrition, reinvigorating intellectual pursuits, reading, and optimizing my physical fitness. These are goals that don’t necessarily work well with Army requirements that consume the preponderance of my time. And to be brutally honest, I haven’t been able to derive enough value, fulfillment, or meaning out of my time in the Army to make it worth surrendering my freedom, physical and mental health, time, and family. Some (especially careerists) would immediately assume my attitude as indignant and interpret this as an insult. It’s not that at all. I would ask you to please maintain perspective. There are countless other paths I can follow where I’ll have the opportunity to serve humanity in some capacity, provide a service where it’s desperately needed, and find meaning within it all. That is simply a fact. All paths aren’t the same and all paths don’t work for every person.
- It’s incredibly difficult (from my humble perspective, I really think it’s impossible) to create long-lasting, enduring organizational change. Leaders from platoon leader to SECDEF typically hold positions for 12-48 months. Due to the temporary nature of jobs and the short-term quantifiable metrics of success, there’s no incentive or emphasis on the long-term trajectory or health of the unit or the Army. We talk about it a lot, but I personally didn’t observe metrics or incentives aimed at the long term–at least in any meaningful way where people are empowered to affect change and also be held accountable. And if you try to influence long-term evolution, it seems the efforts are often futile. I think the best one can do is try try to have a positive impact on individuals, which many have taken the time to do for me in the Army. I’m forever grateful to them because I probably wouldn’t have lasted this long. The emphasis on the short term is primarily because the Army’s current personnel turnover/talent management model inherently doesn’t accommodate for anything beyond 12-48 months. I realize all of this is complicated. I don’t claim to have the solution or the perspective that Army senior leaders have. And I realize that I have a limited point of view that’s been shaped by my limited experiences. Eight years isn’t a long time in an organization. But that’s been my reality. And ultimately, you must make your life choices based upon your reality–not someone else’s interpretation of what they think your reality is or should be.
- Approximately 80% of the field grade officers or senior NCOs I’ve encountered appear to have problematic physical, mental, emotional, social, and/or family issues. Bad knees, bad back, chronic disease…the physiological manifestation of psychological issues that are often related to the Army. Anxiety, depression, stress. Families falling apart: domestic disputes, divorce, separation, custody battles. Addictions to stay awake and numb feelings of anger or dissatisfaction: caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, food. I genuinely believe that many people are deeply unhappy, but beyond that–it seems like they often struggle to find meaning and fulfillment. Which is the same place that I currently find myself. And if my current existential crisis is most likely just doomed to perpetuate, then I think that’s my sign that it’s time for radical life change. Of course, there are a million other variables here we could discuss, but one of the primary contributing factors to these issues is undeniably the Army. It’s indisputably the common denominator. We (collectively, as an institution) preach about work-life balance and family, but our actions don’t always support this.
- I have a burning desire to live (at least temporarily) a completely free, minimalist life. I think about societal expectations and constant measuring. Whose university degree is fancier? Whose house is bigger? Whose car is more expensive? Who has the trendiest material possessions? I’m not claiming I have anything figured out, nor am I claiming I don’t like nice things, but I do know that I see a lot of miserable people. We sit inside of a box all day, staring at a screen, with little to no exposure to physical activity or sunshine. We do this so we can PAY people to maintain our elaborate yards and simultaneously PAY to use indoor exercise machines that allow us to do fake work. Then we PAY to go sit in a coffin with fake sunlight to make our skin darker. Why? Doesn’t anything about that sound just wrong? I think about our culture of status and the vicious cycle we seem to have created for ourselves. A cycle of thousands of dollars of debt to purchase things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t care about, with money we don’t have. It all feels like one big status competition. Where people are struggling to outdo each other because their livelihoods depend on it. And the end result? Indentured servitude. Why. Just WHY? I’m out. At least for a while.
I imagine a lot of people in all kinds of industries and occupations can relate to this. It’s definitely not just the Army, this is just the personal path on which I can reflect. All that to say, I simultaneously have a lot of love and hate for the Army. I’ve truly enjoyed much of my time in the Army, and I met all of my best friends. I’ve learned a lot about myself, what I can offer, and places where I need to improve and devote more time. I’m appreciative of the opportunities and benefits that I’ve been able to take advantage of, and I don’t regret this path for a second. It’s made me who I am today. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t weigh in on the disadvantages of this lifestyle and profession–particularly important in an environment where one-sided, positively biased messaging is the primary narrative you can expect to hear. Healthy criticism is important and necessary. This is an incredibly important decision for me, and one that I don’t take lightly. It’s been real. But for now…I’m over it.
As Neo said, “I’ll show these people what you don’t want them to see. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.”
Future articles will dig into some opportunities I discovered as I’m beginning to plan my escape. Seriously, thanks for taking the time to read. I hope this helps you as you consider your own situation. Peace!